Euro 2016 began with concerns that the expanded field would lead to one-sided matches and meaningless games, with just eight of the UEFA competition’s 24 teams dropping out of the group stage. Instead, the outsiders rose to the occasion, and the final round of group matches provided ample drama to put those concerns firmly to rest. After 36 group matches, the knockout stage is set and there should be no shortage of intriguing storylines.
Here’s how the Round of 16 matches could shape up.
Switzerland vs. Poland (Saturday, 9 a.m. EDT, ESPN) Poland progressed behind Germany in Group C based on a solid defense and organization that kept its opponents scoreless through three matches. In attacking, however, the team has yet to hit full throttle, with star striker Robert Lewandowski failing to net in the group stage. Given that Switzerland matched Poland in finding the net just twice, the first knockout-round match may not exactly be a goalfest. Switzerland underwhelmed in qualifying and did so again in its first two games in France before showing signs of improvement in a scoreless draw with the host country.
Prediction: Poland win.
Wales vs. Northern Ireland (Saturday, noon, ESPN) Given this is Wales’ first major tournament in 58 years and Northern Ireland’s first in 34 years, simply getting to this stage represents a major achievement for both nations. Wales even made the last 16 as its group winner after claiming victories over Slovakia and Russia, which sandwiched a defeat at the death to England. Meanwhile, Northern Ireland grabbed a superb win over Ukraine, while managing to crucially hold Poland and Germany to single-goal victories to sneak through in third place. Wales’ performance against Russia and the form of Gareth Bale, who leads the tournament scoring table with three goals, will make Chris Coleman’s side the favorite.
Prediction: Wales win.
Croatia vs. Portugal (Saturday, 3 p.m., ESPN) After disappointing at the 2014 FIFA World Cup, Croatia looks ripe to finally live up to its billing as a tournament dark horse. Other than a late collapse to concede two goals against the Czech Republic after a delay caused by flares thrown onto the field, Croatia has been mighty impressive. A midfield featuring Ivan Rakitić and Luka Modrić is a match for any team, but even without Modric and Juventus striker Mario Mandžukić, Croatia beat Spain to top Group D. With the duo expected to return for the last 16, Croatia must be favorite against a Portugal team that could only finish third behind Hungary and Iceland in Group F. Cristiano Ronaldo finally got going with two goals against Hungary, but it could well be another tournament of underachievement for Portugal.
Prediction: Croatia win.
France vs. Republic of Ireland (Sunday, 9 a.m., ESPN) The Republic of Ireland provided another moment to remember in a major tournament with Robbie Brady heading in a winner against Italy with five minutes remaining to secure passage to the last 16. It was a performance worthy of victory and, eviscerating the memory of its dismal 3-0 defeat to Belgium in the previous match, should mean Ireland heads forward with optimism. France has all the talent on its side, but it struggled to find fluidity in last-gasp wins over Romania and Albania and a goalless result with Switzerland. All the pressure will be on the host country, with Ireland looking to cause a famous upset.
Prediction: France win.
Germany vs. Slovakia (Sunday, noon, ESPN) Germany topped its group, but has yet to look like the reigning world champion at Euro 2016. A lack of speed and ruthlessness in the final third continues to undermine the silky passing and movement between the penalty boxes. Still, there were positive signs in its 1-0 win over Northern Ireland, when the inclusion of a true striker in Mario Gómez opened up space for the likes of Thomas Müller. The contest this weekend could well feature a scenario similar to those in its first three matches as it faces a Slovakia team that showed it was happy just to reach the last 16 while hanging onto third place with a goalless draw against England.
Prediction: Germany win.
Hungary vs. Belgium (Sunday, 3 p.m., ESPN) Hungary was arguably the biggest surprise of the group stage. Expected to do little in the country’s first major tournament since 1986 and with a squad lacking top-level pedigree, Hungary began by upsetting Austria, struck late to claim a point against Iceland and then played out a 3-3 thriller with Portugal to top Group F. It is unlikely to have any fear going up against Belgium, either. A dismal opening loss against Italy brought talk of infighting within the camp and huge criticism directed at coach Marc Wilmots. There is no question Belgium has the talent to go far, but the collective spirit of Hungary will provide a stiff test.
Prediction: Belgium win.
Italy vs. Spain (Monday, noon, ESPN2) Unquestionably, this will be the match of the round and one that neither team will have wanted. Everything appeared to be running to plan for Spain when it followed up a solid opening win over the Czech Republic with a comprehensive and stylish 3-0 victory over Turkey. But the concession of a late goal to go down to defeat against Croatia meant finishing second and facing an ominous draw. Italy will not be best pleased that its reward for topping Group E is a meeting with the two-time defending European champion. Still, while Spain undeniably has vastly more talent at its disposal, Antonio Conte’s side showed in beating Belgium that it is more than capable of bridging a gap in ability through defensive steel and shrewd tactics. The two sides drew 1-1 in a friendly in March, and another close battle could be in the cards.
Prediction: Spain win.
England vs. Iceland (Monday, 3 p.m., ESPN2) Iceland’s remarkable story of reaching a first-ever major tournament is not over yet. The country with a population of less than 330,000 proved anything but a pushover as it first earned a draw with Portugal and then defeated Austria to progress to the last 16. Now it has an opportunity to possibly add another amazing chapter to its fairy tale. England has yet to put together a complete performance after sandwiching a late win over Wales with disappointing draws with Russia and Slovakia. Still, the prospect of taking on an Iceland team that shares many characteristics with a typical English side should not faze Roy Hodgson’s squad.
Prediction: England win.
Live Stream: All matches will be available through Watch ESPN.